Yesterday, July 6, the Eighth Circuit upheld the United States v. DeCoster three-month prison sentences and $100,000 fines for Austin “Jack” DeCoster and Peter DeCoster, respectively the owner and chief operating officer of Quality Egg, LLC. Over the years, several salmonellosis foodborne illness outbreaks were associated with eggs from DeCoster farms. In a 2010 outbreak that resulted in the present case, nearly 56,000 were sickened.
In a 2–1 decision, the appeals panel ruled that even though the DeCosters did not know that the eggs they shipped had Salmonella, they “are liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak” and that jail time is appropriate. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act “punishes neglect where the law requires care.” See United States v. Park, 421 U.S. at 671 (the eponymous case for the Park doctrine, also known as the “responsible corporate officer” doctrine).
This case was notable for the number of amici on behalf of the DeCosters: The Washington Legal Foundation, Cato Institute, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and the National Association of Manufacturers. Recently there has been a concerted push for abolishing strict liability from all federal law, including the Park doctrine of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
No matter how you feel about mens rea, the DeCosters are poor poster children for eliminating Park doctrine strict liability under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Strategically, a proposal to eliminate strict liability that applies to the Park doctrine stakes out a weak position. It defends wrongdoers whose negligence causes tens of thousands of serious illnesses. It defends wrongdoers whose negligence causes the deaths among the most defenseless, children and the elderly. Be prepare to answer the grieving mother who lost a child or the widow or daughter who lost her father, who was a decorated WWII veteran or decorated Korean War veteran.